The Economics of Forts

I had first planned to write this post back in February 2012, when I visited the magnificent Kumbalgarh Fort in Southern Rajasthan (this was part of my bike ride around that state). However, I didn’t have a typing device handy, so I postponed the post, and it got postponed indefinitely until I visited the equally magnificent Chitradurga Fort in Karnataka recently.

The fort in Chitradurga is famous possibly because of the early 1970s Vishnuvardhan movie¬†Naagarahaavu (cobra) which is set in that city. A lot of the action in the movie takes place in and around the fort, and there is a famous song which is picturized in the fort. The song goes back in history, too, to the battle between Nawab Hyder Ali of Mysore and Madakari Nayaka of Chitradurga back in the 1770s, when after multiple attempts Hyder Ali finally managed to capture the fort. The heroine of the song is one “Onake Obavva” who slays a number of Hyder Ali’s soldiers entering the fort through a small gap in the rocks using her pestle, until she is attacked from behind and killed.

The fort at Chitradurga is popularly known as the “yELu suttina kOTe” or “seven layered fort”. This is not entirely correct. The fort has seven “layers” of walls only on the front side. At ¬†the back, where it is bordered by another hill, there are only two layers of walls. However, the terrain meant that the back was not easily approachable for invaders so most invasions happened through the front. In that sense, the name wasn’t so wrong.

I could write this post about the design of the fort itself (and there is a lot to talk about it -from the rain water harvesting to feed the moats, to the L-shaped design of the gates to the attention to detail in the positions of the soldiers and guards, and arrangements for their camps, and so forth). However, I would prefer here to talk about the economics of building the fort.

The Nayakas of Chitradurga initially started off as a vassal state to Vijayanagara. When Vijayanagara fell in 1565 following defeat at the Battle of Talikota, Chitradurga and the Nayakas became independent. The Nayakas ruled for over 200 years until they were defeated by Hyder Ali in the 1770s. During that period they built this magnificent fort. The question that arises, however, is about how they were able to finance it.

Building a fort with seven layers is no joke. Stones had to be quarried, cut and raised to build each wall. Considerable engineering and architectural acumen also went into the design of the fort itself. It apparently took several generations for the fort to get completed. Considering that there was little economic activity in and around Chitradurga those days apart from agriculture, one can only suppose that the state that built the fort was extractive.

On a visit to Bikaner last February, someone pointed out to me about the quality of the craftsmanship that went into creating the stone carvings in the palace there. “You will never get such quality nowadays”, this person surmised. I agreed with him, and my reasoning was that nobody is willing to pay for such intricacies nowadays. It is only in an extractive state where the taxpayer has no control over the state’s finances that a ruler can spend thus to beautify his own residence rather than spending on the development of the state itself. Where there is a “large coalition” whose support the ruler draws to stay in power, he is forced to invest in projects that benefit this large coalition at the expense of those that just benefit himself.

Wandering through the Chitradurga Fort on Sunday, I thought the expenses on developing the fort could be justified as simply a “large defence budget”. However, the problem with this hypothesis is that a fort doesn’t really provide ‘national security’. What a fort instead does is to make the capital city strong and defensible, but this comes at the cost of securing the borders. People outside the fort are perfectly susceptible to plunder and pillage by the invading party. All the fort does is to protect the capital and the treasury, and thus the king.

The next time you see a magnificent palace or a fort, think of the economic conditions in the state that built it. Think of how the structure might have been financed, and if so much could be spent on a structure such as this what the total size of the royal budget might have been. Then imagine what the tax rates might have been if the royal family managed that large a budget, especially when the kingdom in question was a rather small one like the ones at Chitradurga or Kumbalgarh. Then decide if you would have wanted to live and do business in that age.

After two hundred years of solid resistance, the Chitradurga Fort finally fell to Hyder Ali, in the old fashioned way. Hyder Ali simply bribed some of Madakari Nayaka’s officers, and got them to switch sides. A path through the back that was normally used to supply milk and curd to the fort was discovered, and with the complicity of some of Madakari Nayaka’s officers, Hyder Ali invaded through this route. And the fort fell.

Radhakrishna, the tourist guide who showed us around the fort on Sunday put it best. “Of what use is two walls or seven walls”, he said, “if you can’t exercise control over your own officers?”